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I find the following long quote a bit of a tangent,but for some reason I find it relevant:

" How long will you need to find your truest, most productive niche? This I cannot predict, for, sadly, access to a podium confers no gift of prophecy. But I can say that however long it takes, it will be time well spent. I am reminded of a friend from the early 1970s, Edward Witten. I liked Ed, but felt sorry for him, too, because, for all his potential, he lacked focus. He had been a history major in college, and a linguistics minor. On graduating, though, he concluded that, as rewarding as these fields had been, he was not really cut out to make a living at them. He decided that what he was really meant to do was study economics. And so, he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. And, after only a semester, he dropped out of the program. Not for him. So, history was out; linguistics, out; economics, out. What to do? This was a time of widespread political activism, and Ed became an aide to Senator George McGovern, then running for the presidency on an anti-war platform. He also wrote articles for political journals like the Nation and the New Republic. After some months, Ed realized that politics was not for him, because, in his words, it demanded qualities he did not have, foremost among them common sense. All right, then: history, linguistics, economics, politics, were all out as career choices. What to do? Ed suddenly realized that he was really suited to study mathematics. So he applied to graduate school, and was accepted at Princeton. I met him midway through his first year there--just after he had dropped out of the mathematics department. He realized, he said, that what he was really meant to do was study physics; he applied to the physics department, and was accepted.

I was happy for him. But I lamented all the false starts he had made, and how his career opportunities appeared to be passing him by. Many years later, in 1987, I was reading the New York Times magazine and saw a full-page picture akin to a mug shot, of a thin man with a large head staring out of thick glasses. It was Ed Witten! I was stunned. What was he doing in the Times magazine? Well, he was being profiled as the Einstein of his age, a pioneer of a revolution in physics called "String Theory." Colleagues at Harvard and Princeton, who marvelled at his use of bizarre mathematics to solve physics problems, claimed that his ideas, popularly called a "theory of everything," might at last explain the origins and nature of the cosmos. Ed said modestly of his theories that it was really much easier to solve problems when you analyzed them in at least ten dimensions. Perhaps. Much clearer to me was an observation Ed made that appeared near the end of this article: every one of us has talent; the great challenge in life is finding an outlet to express it. I thought, he has truly earned the right to say that. And I realized that, for all my earlier concerns that he had squandered his time, in fact his entire career path--the ventures in history, linguistics, economics, politics, math, as well as physics--had been rewarding: a time of hard work, self-discovery, and new insight into his potential based on growing experience."


I don't know what it was like back then, if anyone could get hired for anything, but someone who can apparently breeze into such disparate roles as political spin doctor and graduate student in mathematics must be seriously, seriously talented... He was going to succeed at whatever he finally decided to put his mind to.

Ed Witten showed mathematical precocity at an early age: http://www.maa.org/pubs/mar04.pdf (page 28). Without exposure during his youth, it's almost impossible he could've completed a PhD in math at Princeton.

He has a PhD in physics, not math.


My apologies, it was in (mathematical) physics.

Though, from the wiki article:

Sir Michael Atiyah said of Witten, "Although he is definitely a physicist, his command of mathematics is rivaled by few mathematicians... Time and again he has surprised the mathematical community by a brilliant application of physical insight leading to new and deep mathematical theorems... he has made a profound impact on contemporary mathematics. In his hands physics is once again providing a rich source of inspiration and insight in mathematics."[6] One such example of his impact on pure mathematics is his framework for understanding the Jones polynomial using Chern–Simons theory. This had far reaching implications on low-dimensional topology and led to quantum invariants such as the Witten–Reshetikhin–Turaev invariants.

Even if his degree is in physics, and he's part of the "physics department" at IAS, I would classify him as a brilliant mathematician who decided to apply his energy to his passion, physics. And, come on, the guy won a Fields Medal.

If there is one intelligence outlier on this planet, that's Edward Witten.

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